I've written about how to show kids you love them in quick little ways, and a reader requested that I write a piece about how to bond the same way with older kids or teens. The main idea is the same, you want to show your teenager that you prioritize your relationship, despite your (and their) busy schedules. It can be much harder to bond with teenagers than with little kids, as teens can be extremely challenging. But teenagers need love even when they act like they don't.
Many of my teenage clients consider their relationships with their parents to be very stressful, and proactively ask for ways to get along better with their parents. At this age, many clients feel that their parents are on their case all the time, and never talk to them about anything interesting or light-hearted. The parents would be shocked to think that their often silent and bored-acting kids are actually yearning for some more connection. Try some of these ideas to connect with your teenager when you have a few spare minutes, and see if your relationship improves.
1. Text them something funny.
Just like with spouses, often texting with teenagers can devolve into management of logistics. While texts like "Please remember to feed the cat and you have your SAT tutor tonight" are necessary, some kids feel like their parents have turned into humorless task-masters. Even if you and your teen don't necessarily share the same sense of humor, many kids will secretly feel good seeing a "mom/dad joke" and will even share the text (possibly with an eye roll) with their friends.
2. Buy them something small.
Even if spending money on your teenager is a sore subject, with fees for school and extracurriculars, clothes, mall trips, Spring Break, and whatever else, most people still have a couple of dollars per week or month to buy your teenager something cute that speaks to you. Even a new lip gloss or pair of sunglasses can show your kid that you were thinking of them, and that you know their unique taste.
3. Let them pick the music in the car.
You may hate what they pick, but you'll hate it more when they scream at you saying that you never respect them as a person or care about what they care about. Many teenagers identify very strongly with their musical preferences, and if you learn about what they like to listen to, you are showing that you truly care about what they feel and who they are.
4. Let them pick where you eat/shop/whatever.
While you can set the budget and the time constraints, try and allow your teenager to make choices about things that honestly don't really matter one way or the other. And if you really have strong preferences about where to eat or shop or what movie to see, consider the possibility that you need to be more flexible if you want to model flexibility and graciousness for your kid.
5. Book club, sort of.
If your teenager enjoys a book, try and read it. At the very least, cheat and look up the summary on Amazon or something, so that you can discuss it. As with music, kids can get really into what they read, and vampire novels may be exactly what you and your daughter can discuss for ten minutes in the car instead of fighting or watching her text her friends and ignore you.
6. Social media.
For every teenager (or young adult) that begs her parents not to use social media, there are two who think it's kind of cute to give shoutouts to Mom or Dad on Twitter or whatever the newest social network is. Friend your kids' friends' parents on Facebook. If they are all posting their kids' prom pictures and talking about how proud they are of them, then you may want to get on the bandwagon and do the same. Some kids really value these virtually public displays of parental love and pride, even though they wouldn't ask for them outright.
7. Compliment your teen on what is important to THEM.
Almost every parent nowadays compliments their child on effort at school or sports. But what is genuinely important to your particular individual kid? For some who are into fashion, it is looking exactly like they stepped out of the 90's (for real, this is a goal now) or having makeup as perfect as whatever YouTube tutorial they watched till 1am. Parents often ignore what is genuinely important to their teenager and focus on what they feel is more "important." This leaves teenagers feeling disconnected and even manipulated, as they feel you're reserving your positive reinforcement for things on your own agenda. Take a couple of seconds and say something nice about whatever your kid is trying to do or be OUTSIDE of school.
8. Express faith in your kid.
Just a couple of quick comments here and there can make a huge difference in what your teenager thinks you feel about him. An offhand, "I know you can do it" or "I'm so glad I never have to worry when you watch your sister" can go miles in making your teenager feel confident and in maintaining your connection.
9. Share stories of your own mistakes at their age.
Don't give them all happy endings either. Sometimes it can be very helpful for kids to know that even the most put-together, successful parent used to be a normal kid who made mistakes. This is especially useful if you have a child who views you as completely out-of-touch with their own issues, like a girl who feels ugly and awkward who has a beautiful, poised mother, or a kid who keeps failing classes with his successful entrepreneur dad. Note: if you can't think of any stories from your youth in which you did something really dumb, you need to think harder.
10. Say "I love you."
Even if your teenager doesn't say it back all the time, make sure that you tell them that you love them frequently. This is something that they will remember, and as adults looking back, they do remember whether this was just "Love you" in cards or a genuine "I love you" after discussions. Tell your teenager that you love them every day, even if they aren't being that lovable in the moment.
Hope these tips are helpful, and write in with more that work for you and your teenager. And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Teenagers Show Their Therapists Your Texts To Them, So Be Nice.
Learn about Dr. Rodman's private practice, including therapy, coaching, and consultation, here. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.